Higher Education Strategy Associates

Too Much Peer Review?

One way in which Canada stands out internationally in higher education is our ultra-reliance on individual peer review as a means of allocating research funding. While peer review is in many ways the “gold standard” of research assessment mechanisms, it has the drawback of being incredibly time-consuming, both for the applicant and for the assessors.

What’s the alternative, though? Well, as Paula Stephan points out in her quite excellent book How Economics Shape Science, there are a number of ways that are in use in other countries.

The most common is block grants and assessments. This system plays a role in the funding of many European systems of education as well as Australia and New Zealand. Under this system, money is awarded based on assessments not of individual but of departmental performance. This is usually done through some mix of peer review with a heavy dose of bibliometric analysis.

This system doesn’t completely supplant individual peer review in those countries – they have granting councils like ours, too, though they tend to be smaller. Rather, these block grants cover some portion of materials costs as well as supporting that portion of professors’ salaries which pay for research time. In Canada, we don’t even think of these monies as “research funding” because of the way they are built into the grants universities receive from provinces. By international standards, the Canadian equivalent of the European/Antipodean “block grant and assessment” system should really be called “block grant and no assessment.”

Another approach which has gained favour recently is the use of prizes, where institutions compete to achieve a major scientific task. Though the most famous of these (e.g., the Google Lunar X Prize, the Archon X Prize) usually involve philanthropic money, various agencies of the U.S. government have established over 50 such prizes to spur scientific efforts. Using prizes is obviously only effective in limited circumstances, but they have their uses.

Perhaps none of these methods is as good as peer review, but they do all require professors to spend a lot less time writing grant applications. Given how big a concern that is among Canadian scientists these days, maybe we ought to consider adopting a few of these methods to simplify life. For instance, if a researcher is a demonstrably excellent one – say, if they are one of 12-13% or so whose H-index score is twice the average for their field (data suitably age-adjusted, etc.), why not just give them $100,000 a year and eliminate the hassle of applications? In NSERC disciplines the likelihood is they’d get that much anyway.

Bibliometrics aren’t just for nerds. They can save a lot of time and money, too, if we let them.

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